With the prevalence of stress in our modern world, adaptogenic herbs have become very popular. To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb must be completely safe, non-toxic, and must specifically reduce both mental and physical stress. The idea that a pill could improve mental and physical performance in healthy people originated during World War II when various stimulants were given to pilots and submarine crews.

Early research

The first studies of the effects of Schisandra chinensis were published in Soviet Union WWII military journals. It was reported that the berries and seeds could be used as a tonic to reduce exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and improve night vision. During the 1950's, the idea of using herbal medicinal plants to increase strength and survival in harmful environments was developed. This new concept of adaptogens was introduced by a toxicologist to describe compounds which could increase a state of resistance to stress. This concept was based on the three phases of Hans Selye’s theory of stress and general adaptation: alarm phase, resistance phase, and exhaustion phase.

fresh herbs

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens were more recently defined as herbal preparations that increased attention and fatigue endurance and reduced stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the neuro-endocrine and immune systems. This definition was based on evidence from clinical trials which were evaluated in accordance with the European Medicines Agency Assessment Scale and the US Natural Standards Evidence–based Validated Grading Rationale. However, the term adaptogen is often applied to plants even when the criteria has not been met.

lavender growing in a field

Some adaptogenic herbs

Adaptogens for long-term stress: Asian ginseng and Ashwagandha help to ease long-term stress and the hormone imbalances that can result from it. Some research has suggested that holy basil, or tulsi, may help lower stress levels. Research also suggests that holy basil can help protect the liver and support liver function.

Adaptogens for acute stress and anxiety: Some research suggests that Siberian ginseng (Eeleutherococcus senticosus), rhodiola and schisandra may help mediate the fight-or-flight response. Siberian ginseng is used to boost the immune system, physical stamina and sexual health; rhodiola is believed to improve energy, physical performance and memory, and schisandra is thought to improve liver function and gastrointestinal problems.

Adaptogens for immune health: Reishi and ginseng have been found to boost immunity.

fresh cut herbs with scissors

A word of caution

You should always talk to a physician before adding adaptogens to your diet. A 2018 study found that common herbal supplements can interact negatively with some prescription medications, Many people don’t tell their doctors about the over-the-counter drugs and supplements they take.

There is little documented evidence to suggest that adaptogens can cause side effects or other health problems. However, like any plant, they can be allergenic or cause gastrointestinal distress for some people. There’s been little research regarding adaptogen effects on the body over time.

While it’s probably safe to take them, people sometimes want to routinely take these adaptogens for chronic stress that's not being managed in other ways. It can be easier to take a pill than to make a lifestyle change, but, in the long run, getting to the root cause of stress is the healthiest thing to do.

mortar and pestal with a number of herbs